Earlier this month, for the first time in 50 years, the cost of crossing into Wales over the Severn Bridge dropped. While for car drivers the first reduction was only from £6.70 to £5.60, the significance of this change should not be underestimated.
In fact, figures show that for commuters, this translates to a saving this year of £286 and larger vehicles will save £858, at a time when costs for all motorists are increasing, thanks to escalating insurance premiums and rising petrol prices.
But this £1.10 is just the beginning, by the end of the year, the tolls will be scrapped completely, making the two Severn Crossings free to use for the first time in their history.
To discuss how we are going to take full advantage of the removal of the tolls which have acted as a barrier to growth for so long, last week’s Severn Growth Summit brought together representatives from business, education, cultural, media and digital sectors, from both sides of the Severn.
The Secretary of State for Wales was one of the leading voices at the summit and he has been very vocal, before and since, about the amazing opportunities that this change can bring. He believes that removing the tolls will create the “biggest economic stimulus Wales has seen in decades” and if that proves to be the case, together with the recent report on the achievements and progress at Cardiff Airport, it couldn’t come at a better time.
Of course, there are many commentators who have been saying just this for years but it’s not as simple as just removing the tolls and watching the South Wales economy prosper. As the summit demonstrated, there will need to be definite plans in place to take full advantage of the opportunities that this creates.
This cannot be over-stated – for example, we must avoid the potential for public officers across South Wales, Bristol and the South West to spend their time deliberating over governance, structures, power, etc.; instead we need to all get behind a few, initial, game-changing initiatives, driven in partnership with the private sector and facilitated smoothly by local government where required.
Once we have one or two significant shared wins in the bag, then the momentum and energy from right across the Severn region will help to shape our next steps and future direction – and I firmly believe this can be delivered without the need in the first instance, of arguing over which part of the region gets what out of an initial successful bid. Let’s just get something nailed first; let’s make that bold statement, and then together we can build for the longer-term.
Twenty-five million journeys are made across the two Severn Bridges every year. As it stands, more people commute between Cardiff/Newport and Bristol than between Manchester and Liverpool, an incredible fact when you consider the costs.
We are already in a very strong position because there are a number of thriving sectors that exist across the region including digital, finance and aerospace; and freer movement of people will also hopefully mean better opportunity to recruit more skilled individuals.
It would be naïve to suggest that the removal of the tolls will be without its pitfalls. There will certainly be issues to face, not least, the increasing pressure on the M4. While we are still waiting for the final figures, it has been estimated in the past that halving the Severn Bridge tolls would lead to an additional 17% of traffic on the motorway, a figure that will add even more pressure to an already struggling road network.
However, we’re only in January and I’ve already written about transport links twice so, I’ll just say that once the tolls are abolished, the M4 relief road, the South Wales Metro and the improvements of the Great Western Railway Line from London all the way through to Swansea must become an urgent priority. Bristol is the fastest growing economy outside London. There is absolutely no reason that we shouldn’t be thriving and benefiting from the wider Severn region’s success, and wouldn’t it be ridiculous if in a few years’ time it was still the M4 holding us back?
Acorn is a business with our head office in Newport, and although we have offices all round the UK, importantly we have a significant number across Wales and the South West of England; the scrapping of the Severn Bridge tolls is potentially momentous for our clients therefore, and I’m excited to see the impact that it will have on them and our own business, both sides of the bridge, and for the country as a whole.